Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pamphlet Warfare in the Eighteenth Century


A couple of years ago I gave an example of the dangers associated with judging books by their covers – particularly if it’s an intriguing old book with a less-than-intriguing new binding. This week, I have another example of the same.This item comprises two publications issued in a kind of pamphlet war in the mid-eighteenth century. They have been bound together by an owner in a completely characterless paper cover with a simple black leather band on the spine. A careless eye looking over this outer shell in a bookstore might pass by and never be aware of the treasurers lying within.

The first of the two publications is a pamphlet titled (in full) Letters, On the Spirit of Patriotism: On the Idea of a Patriot King: and On the State of Parties, At the Accession of King George the First. This copy was published by J. Smith of Dublin, whose shop was at “The Philosopher’s Heads” on “the Blind-Quay”, in 1749. The contents begin with an “Advertisement” from the “editor” justifying the publication (iii-vii); this is followed by three anonymous “letters” from 1736, 1738, and (the last) an unspecified year. It runs 216 pages and may be described collationally as 12o:[A1]-[I11]: $6. 

The second publication is The Impostor Detected and Convicted: or, The Principles and Practices of the Author of a Pamphlet Lately Published, On the Spirit of Patriotism, &c. Set Forth in a Clear Light, In a Letter to a Member of Parliament in Town, From his Friend in the Country. This was published first in London and then reprinted in Dublin in 1754, though the “letter” it contains is dated May 1749, indicating that its author produced it hard upon the heels of the appearance of Letters. The speed with which the Dublin edition was issued is attested to in the garbled imprint: “London: Printed: And / Dublin: Reprinted, in thn Year / MDCCXLIX.” It runs 23 pages and is collated as 4o: [A4]-[C4]: $1.

The first of these was written (largely in self-defense) by the English politician and sometime-philosopher/historian Henry St. John Bolingbroke (1678-1751). George I’s accession in 1714 was a tremendous political blow to Bolingbroke, who had long backed the opposing Jacobite party. With the rise of his rivals, Bolingbroke fled England and took to writing more than legislating (he gained some notoriety as a followed of John Locke and as an outspoken Deist who was highly critical of Christianity). His Letters on the Spirit of Patriotism predate these writings, however, and set out a remarkably forward-looking (that is, humanistic) and practical (that is, proto-republican) view of politics, for which he was soundly skewered by many of his foes. Fatefully, in his May 1749 Letters, Bolingbroke singled out Alexander Pope for attack and in doing so he attracted the ire of many other writers, effectively triggering a pamphlet war that produced at least six subsequent publications (on these, see, for example, Austin Wright’s “John Spence as Defender of Pope’s Reputation” in Modern Philology 36.2 [November 1938]).

It would be as tiresome here to recount the particulars of the disgruntled parties as it is to read the actual pamphlets. Suffice it to say that personal, and in some cases literary, egos were bruised more than any strictly political views crossed. Indeed, this was the usual nature of pamphlet wars throughout the period: private polemics boiling over into public discourse. They flared up quickly and died down with little lasting effect. The cheaply produced publications used to wage the war were usually so poorly printed and so widely read that they rarely survive in any great numbers or good condition.

The first edition of Bolingbroke’s Letters appeared in London in 1749 under the imprint of A. Millar and immediately caused a sensation; its republication in Philadelphia (by no less a firm than Ben Franklin and D. Hall – perhaps related to Samuel Hall?) and Dublin (my copy) testifies to its popularity. Subsequent London editions followed from Millar in 1750 and 1752 and T. Davies in 1775. The Imposter was less prevalent: besides my Dublin edition, I have only been able to find a reference to one other edition, published in London by John Barnes of the London Gazette in 1749. There seems to be no reliable evidence as to the authorship of the rejoinder. It’s tempting to guess that the same Dublin publisher issued both pamphlets, but there are sufficient differences in the typography to strongly suggest otherwise.

My copy of the two pamphlets is in rough condition: all the pages are present and all the text is intact, but the edges of the paper were burned as some point and some mildewing and water staining is evident on the paper. The gatherings are effectively free of the spine and some individual pages have separated also. Such damage speaks to the fact that the book has been used in its time. Also standing as evidence of such are the marginal markings. A dealer’s price is penciled on the title page of the first pamphlet ($150!).

A different pencil has added marginal vertical lines and check-marks alongside passages of interest and occasional marginal notes (these appear in both pamphlets), including the note “Timely” beside a paragraph that begins, “As to all thread-bare stale Accusations of Maintaining Soldiers in Time of Peace; of the Nation’s being loaded with heavy Taxes; and that the Publick Money  has been profusely squandered away…” (Imposter, 16; a complaint so generic and applicable to so many time periods, however, as to render the excerpt without use in dating the marginalia). A third pencil has added a “#2” on the title page of Letters, implying that it was at one point part of a larger collection; the same pencil has written “Warburton” (that is, literary scholar and anti-Deist William Warburton) on the title page of Letters and added a note on the title page of Imposter noting “In defence of Pope”.

The only ownership provenance is a name written on the title page of Letters in blue ink: “Walter McIntosh Merrill”. The hand just seems to resemble that of the pencil that added the attribution to Warburton and the marginalia. Born in Evanston, Illinois in 1915, Merrill was a scholar and author who published on American history and especially on William Lloyd Garrison from the 1940s through the 1980s. Before his turn toward the famed nineteenth-century American abolitionist, however, Merrill specialized in – as it happens – the work of Henry St. John Bolingbroke. He completed his Ph.D. dissertation, Bolingbroke’s Deism, at Harvard in 1945 and subsequently published it as From Statesman to Philosopher: A Study in Bolingbroke’s Deism (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949). (Interestingly, though from Illinois, Merrill’s mother briefly lived in my old hometown of Salem and in Marblehead, where I went to school. The coincidence has nothing to do with my acquiring of the book, however; it was one of the lots from my June 2011 visit to New England Book Auctions in Northampton, MA.) Merrill was a professor of English at Wichita State University, where he was chair of the department for a time in the mid-1960s. Because he does not mention Imposter in his book on Bolingbroke, I suspect he obtained the pamphlets only after the book was published in 1949.

This ownership provenance helps clear up the presence of the added name “Warburton” on Letters: rather than an ascription of authorship (which would have been completely unbelievable, especially for a scholar specializing in Bolinbroke) I think it indicates Merrill’s knowledge that this particular copy of the pamphlet belonged to the anti-Deist. This makes it possible that Warburton was in fact the author of the accompanying pamphlet, Imposter – a possibility effectively confirmed by the falsely modest “signature” that accompanies the “letter” that is the content of Imposter: “W-------n”.

As I turn toward revising (really wholesale rewriting) my own dissertation this week, it seems fitting to discover that one of the items on my shelf hearkens back to similar work done by a scholar of an earlier generation (even if he did acquire it only after his work on the subject was published). I’m glad – and not ashamed to admit a bit sentimental – that the book that sat at the center of his research passion is today still extant and part of my own collection. Perhaps some day I, too, will own one of the actual texts that I study.

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